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Inside the Recording Studio of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ricker discovered a century-old steel mill that was perfect for the recording studio because of its sparse rooms, original brickwork, and faded wood plank walls. “There was a certain amount of texture within that building,” says the two-time Emmy-nominated designer, “and it was designed with the intention that the studio owners had placed it in the corner of the factory.” The oppressive sets feature an elevated glass booth where the white studio owners look down on the Black recording artists, creating a metaphor that the white people were “overseers.”

No stranger to designing period musical biopics, Ricker previously worked with Boseman when the actor, who passed away in 2020 after a secret battle with cancer, played James Brown in Get On Up. Ricker felt the period-appropriate recording equipment were especially important props. “It is like a character in the film and I wanted to get it right,” he says. He and set decorator Diana Stoughton tracked down someone to create the functioning recording equipment and then soundproof the walls with old upholstery padded with horsehair and heavy curtains. They even brought in original Ma Rainey recordings and played them on the set for ambiance.

pChadwick Boseman as cornet player Levee on the set of one of the Chicago streets.p

Chadwick Boseman as cornet player Levee on the set of one of the Chicago streets.

Photo: David Lee/NETFLIX

A Victorian-style chair with mauve velvet, a tripod-base table, a white bubble-glass lamp, a tabletop fan, and a piano are the sole furnishings. “The chair wasn’t scripted, but we wanted Ma to have a place to sit in the factory, as her throne. The chair just sort of showed up one day, we placed it in the middle of the room, and it was just perfection. It became the perfect chair for her,” Ricker says. For the studio’s color palette, the designer used ochre, green, and wood tones that would contrast with the jewel tones of the costumes worn by Ma and her girlfriend Dussie Mae (played by Taylour Paige).

Outside the factory, creating the streets of Chicago involved designing two blocks of storefronts, billboards, and awnings, and using visual effects to help conjure a streetscape that includes everything from South Halsted Street to a Rexall drugstore and the aptly named Hot Rhythm Recording Studio. Accuracy was key, as Ricker notes: “I looked at a lot of maps of Chicago to try and figure out where the streets would have gone and what was the industrial neighborhood because we really wanted the signage to have the right kind of addresses.”

a city

Creating two blocks of Chicago, production designer Mark Ricker studied period maps and designed signage and awnings of the city in the 1920s.

Courtesy of Mark Ricker

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While this is an adaptation, the production design has the intimate feel of a play and creates an authentic environment for the characters. “As for minimalism, you can still do good work, but the focus is in a different way that is limited and it can be more difficult,” Ricker says. “I had to really be on my game and make the sets as interesting as possible by finding shapes, lines, and textures. George [Wolfe, the film’s director] would always remind me, ‘Never forget: The actors hold the attention.’”

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